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"Gorgeous . . . DuBois writes with haunting richness and fierce intelligence. She has an equal grasp of politics and history, the emotional nuances of her complex characters, and the intricacies of chess. Irina and Aleksandr are difficult people, prickly and formidable, but they’re also sympathetic and flawed, vulnerable and human. DuBois’ evocations of Russia are lush, and her swashbuckling descriptions, whether of chess games, a doomed political campaign, or the anticipation of death, are moving yet startlingly funny—full of bravado, insight, and clarity. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a thrilling debut by a young writer who evidently shares the uncanny brilliance of her protagonists.” —Kate Christensen, Elle
"Jennifer duBois's first novel is a meticulously constructed tale of intertwining destinies. Irina, a young American facing an unbearable diagnosis, and Aleksandr, a former Soviet chess champion turned dissident politician, are brought together by a long-forgotten letter that asks how to carry on with a lost cause. Ranging from Massachusetts to Moscow and covering several decades, A Partial History of Lost Causes abounds and fascinates with dark wit and poignant insight, chess and politics, frozen rivers and neon nightclubs.” —Maggie Shipstead, Salon
“Hilarious and heartbreaking and a triumph of the imagination. Jennifer duBois is too young to be this talented. I wish I were her.”—Gary Shteyngart
“An amazing achievement—a braiding of historical, political, and personal, each strand illuminating the other. Wonderful characters, elusive glimpses of wisdom, and a gripping story that accelerates to just the right ending.”—Arthur Phillips
“Thrilling, thoughtful, strange, gorgeous, political, and deeply personal, Jennifer duBois’s A Partial History of Lost Causes is a terrific debut novel. In prose both brainy and beautiful, she follows her characters as they struggle to save each other. This is a book to get lost in.”—Elizabeth McCracken
“By what exquisite strategy did duBois settle on this championship permutation of literary moves? Her debut is a chess mystery with political, historical, philosophical, and emotional heft, a paean to the game and the humans who play it. DuBois probes questions of identity, death, art, and love with a piercing intelligence and a questing heart.”—Heidi Julavits
“Terrific . . . In urgent fashion, duBois deftly evokes Russia’s political and social metamorphosis over the past thirty years through the prism of this particular and moving relationship.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Years later, after Aleksandr stopped playing chess and started playing politics, the city would become something altogether different. Bored women with absent eyebrows in Turkish silk bobbed in the lines outside nightclubs, pouring vodka of insane expense into the snow and laughing. Enormous billboards and neon signs made stamps of light against the sky, advertising dreams and attitudes and lifestyles of varying degrees of attainability. Leningrad became St. Petersburg, and St. Petersburg became a place to make and blow loads of cash--there were businesses and ladies enough for industrious men to conquer. Eventually, chess became something different also--once Aleksandr became the world champion and his brilliance was remarked upon so often that it became tedious. This was how somebody with some kind of unusual beauty--enchanting mismatched eyes, impossibly red hair--must feel: after a while, receiving extra credit for something so arbitrary becomes a burden. Chess was a part of him, no different from his poor posture or homely face. And chess became a humiliation and an indictment in the end--after he'd lost the title and his better moments were forgotten but his one best moment, that one best game, still hung over him, preceded him always, like a leper's bell. He was very good for a while, and then something else was better.
But when he was young, he'd had a whole life to imagine.
Stumbling out into the day from the train station felt like emerging from imprisonment only to be lined up against the wall and shot. Aleksandr made his way to his kommunalka first, picking through throngs of stern-looking people, and several small children tried to steal from him before he even made it out onto the street. He followed his careful directions to himself and kept a dumb, hyper-focused attention on his papers. The number of people here was staggering, and more people than lived in the entirety of Okha stepped on Aleksandr's feet before he made it to his new building.
The building was three stories tall and looked, from a distance, like a pile of cinders. In the packed brown snow of the front yard, a very young man stood next to an overturned trunk. The trunk's lid was -unhinged like a half-open jaw, and its contents were splattered across the yard; clearly, it had recently been thrown down the blocky staircase. On the stoop stood a gray-curled old lady in a red housecoat. From the way she was shaking her fist at the young man, Aleksandr figured she was the steward. Up close, he could see that the front door--formerly red, he thought--was splintering. The windows above it were welded shut.
"Excuse me," said Aleksandr. "I'm moving in today."
The steward ignored him. "Go away," she said to the young man with the trunk. "Go away and never come back."
And Aleksandr thought: Maybe it's not too late.
The steward handed Aleksandr his keys. In the kitchen, the rusty communal sink smelled of urine. An older woman in a bathrobe, her hair piled implausibly into a towel, was making toast underneath the exposed piping. On the other side of the kitchen hung decadent skeins of ladies' panty hose. On the bathroom shower curtain, bright green frogs frolicked between patches of black mold. In the hallway, a sign admonished the tenants not to hang up their underwear outside.
Aleksandr's room contained a bed bolted to the floor, a chitinous desk, and an urn-shaped samovar, presumably left over from the previous tenant. Near the ceiling, the laths were showing through the plaster. Raggedy strips of light filtered through the tiny fortochka above the bed, and Aleksandr went to lie in them. The exposed mattress was vaguely moist against his skin. He stretched out his legs. In Okha, he'd shared a bed with his two kicking little sisters, and they'd thrashed all night like dying fish.
He stared at the crescent-shaped fungal smear on the wall; he gazed through the latticework of frost on the windowpane. He tried to sleep. At the end of the week on the train, he'd been so desperate for sleep that he'd tried briefly to sleep in the bathroom--balanced precariously above the hole that emptied onto the tracks--until someone had yelled at him to get the fuck out, idiot. But in bed, he found that he missed the oceanic rumble of the train. He found that he was restless with the energy of being somewhere new when, his whole life, he'd only ever been somewhere old. He found he didn't feel like taking off his shoes yet.
He thought of the policemen down at the train station. He wondered if, out in the city somewhere, anybody was dumb enough to be celebrating.
He wrestled his map from his pocket, picked up his rucksack, and headed down the stairs. In the kitchen, he passed a woman who was using a filthy spatula to scrape the remains of an egg off a pan. She looked at Aleksandr darkly and did not speak. Outside, the cold was settling into itself--announcing its scope, the way pain does after a moment or two--and the cold, along with the accumulated fatigue of six days on a train (two of them spent standing up), was making Aleksandr dizzy. All around him, buildings were painted blue only up to height level, and Aleksandr felt as though he were trapped in the mural of a child who had grown bored and wandered away. The wind kicked up.
Nevsky Prospekt was beautiful: the friezes and columns looked like ancient Rome, and the half-buried stores and bright orange signs and illuminated cinemas looked like the center of the very modern universe. Aleksandr recognized the rally by a beaming poster of Stalin, held high above the crowd like a grandfatherly, mustached god. The crowd was small--desultory and damp, ringed by nervous-looking police. As he approached, Aleksandr saw that the Stalins were everywhere: out of one photo, Stalin glowered menacingly; out of another, Stalin stared with an expression of stern benevolence. Into a microphone, a man droned dully about the Battle of Stalingrad. At the edge of the crowd lurked a small group of men with skunk-striped Mohawks and plaid shirts. Aleksandr leaned against a telephone pole and tried to listen. He was exhausted, he realized, and here--in this last pocket of stingy sun, with the wind breaking at the buildings behind him and the monotone buzz of military accomplishment in his ears--he thought he could probably fall asleep standing up. He pulled his cap tighter over his head. His gaze faltered. His head started to fall forward.
"Enjoying the show?" A man was talking to him. Aleksandr lifted his earflaps and looked. The man was tall and thin; when he moved, it looked like his joints were locking and unlocking and painfully rearranging themselves. He was holding a glass bottle of Pepsi and wearing no gloves. Next to him stood two other men. One was notably pale, even for here, and had eyes the color of kopecks. The other was short, scarred, and writing furiously in a notebook. His mouth moved as if he was chewing something, even though Aleksandr somehow felt sure that he was not. All three of them were dressed in striped sailor shirts and quilted jackets and sodden flapped hats. The tall one wore a small silver medallion around his neck.
"Indeed," said Aleksandr. "Quite a sight."
"To think Koba would be one hundred," said the tall man. His voice was flatter than irony. "What a pity he is not here to enjoy the party."
"True," said Aleksandr. "It's evidently true."
"His reforms were truly adequate to the task of modernization, am I right?"
"Very adequate. More than adequate."
"And that mustache," said the pale one. "That mustache was quite an achievement, yes? Koba had more hair in that mustache than some men have on their entire heads."
Aleksandr turned to look at him. There was something about this one's face that made Aleksandr not want to look at it straight: a haggardness underneath the eyes that raised uncomfortable questions about life in Leningrad. "Yes," said Aleksandr, staring balefully at the ground. "An impressive feat."
The tall man looked at Aleksandr with some amusement then. When he leaned in, his voice was lower. "Did you know he was five feet four?" he said. "He was. He was five feet four and had a bad arm. They never showed it in pictures. They never showed him standing next to anybody. He's sitting in all the pictures with other dignitaries."
"I didn't know that," said Aleksandr carefully. "I was given to believe that Comrade Stalin was a man of some stature."
Aleksandr did not understand how things had gone so wrong so fast, so he turned to the short man, whose scars looked as if they might have just as easily been from fights as from some debilitating skin disease, and stuck out his hand. "Hello," he said. "I'm Aleksandr Kimovich Bezetov. I just moved here." He cast a bright smile, because in Okha, old women had always responded well to his smile. The men shot glances at one another and seemed to experience some collective facial twitching. It wasn't eye-rolling, precisely, but Aleksandr was seized by a frozen feeling that it meant something similar. He looked at the men and squinted. He tried to see in them signs of trouble, but they just looked like everyone else he'd seen on his way from the train station--underslept and vaguely hostile. The tall one was thin, but the other two looked simultaneously chubby and wanly malnourished, as though they'd had enough to eat of only one kind of food. The shortest one crouched down to the ground, revealing the haunches of a mustelid.
"I'm Ivan Dmietrivich Bobrikov," said the thin one. "This is Nikolai Sergeyevich Chernov."
"A pleasure," said Nikolai from the ground.
"The sovok here is Mikhail Andreyevich Solovyov," said Ivan. "Where are you from?"
"Okha," said Aleksandr. "In the East."
"We know where Okha is," said Nikolai. "We're students of geography."
"Geography?" said Aleksandr politely.
"Well, history," said Ivan. He cracked his knuckles.
"Real history," said Mikhail.
"Shut up, Misha," said Ivan. He winked at Aleksandr as though they were adults looking over the head of a child. Aleksandr didn't know what would be communicated by winking back, so he didn't. "And why are you here, tovarish?" said Ivan.
In the center of the crowd, a man was offering a tender eulogy for Stalin. His voice buckled and his nose turned bright red with emotion.
"To play chess," said Aleksandr. "I have a place at the academy. I'm working with Andronov."
"Oh yes? And what is a boy from Okha doing at the academy with Andronov?"
Aleksandr scratched his nose. "I was in his correspondence course first."
"I see," said Ivan. "You have a favorite player, then? You like Spassky?"
"He's all right. He let himself be psychologically outmaneuvered by Fischer, though, in '72. All the nonsense with the money and the late arrival."
"That match was rigged by the Americans, though, am I right? They were controlling Spassky via chemical and electronic devices, yes?"
1. Are Irina’s actions ultimately courageous or cowardly? Do you see her ending as happy?
2. In some ways, Irina’s and Aleksandr’s situations are similar—and in many ways, they are very different. What do you think brings Aleksandr and Irina together as friends? What do you think they learn from each other?
3. The character of Misha challenges Aleksandr’s vision of Russia’s democratic future. Is there any merit to his argument about the pragmatism of slower change? How do recent events in the Arab world speak to this argument?
4. Irina treasures her intellect, and fears that she will not be herself anymore once she begins to lose it. What do you think makes you “you”? Do you feel there’s some essential quality that makes you who you are—and that, if you lost it, you wouldn’t be the same person?
5. Why are Aleksandr’s sections written in third person, while Irina’s sections are written in first? How does this decision inform your reaction to the book? Did you find you connected more with either Irina or Aleksandr?
6. What do you think would have become of Ivan if he’d lived?
7. Irina can often be sardonic and fatalistic. Are there any examples of her behaving in ways that subvert this cynical pose?
8. Beyond Aleksandr’s political career and Irina’s disease, do you see other lost causes in the book? Have you been faced with a lost cause in your own life, and how did you react to it?
9. How does chess work as a metaphor in the book? Is the structure of the game itself mirrored in the structure of the book?
10. Do you think that Aleksandr’s chess brilliance ultimately made him a better or worse person?
11. What role does Irina play in the reunion between Elizabeta and Aleksandr? Do you that they might have reconnected if Irina had never come to Russia?
12. After Misha’s letter to the editor is published, Boris decides to abandon Aleksandr’s campaign, while Viktor decides to go with Irina to Perm. If you were Boris or Viktor, what decision do you think you would have made
Posted May 14, 2012
Irina Ellison has spent most of her life watching her father die, standing by as Huntington's destroyed first his body, and then his mind. His demise is a map of what her own will be; her own diagnosis gives her the certainty that she will one day lose control of her body and mind as certainly as he did, though she can only guess when it will begin. First a twitch of an arm, then a loss of control, then a loss of memory, of self, of personality. Her entire life becomes a question she seems incapable of answering: how should she live, if she knows it is all for naught? "My major character flaw," she writes, "is an inability to invest in lost causes. When you are the lost cause, this makes for a lonely life."
A Partial History of Lost Causes is a novel of love and loss, politics and games, strategies and defeats, and all of the little moments that make up a life before a life is swept away by a death. It is a reminder to appreciate what we have, to value what we've had, and to look forward to what is yet to come. It is the kind of novel you want to rush through, desperate to find out what happens, but also the kind you want to read carefully, to savor, to understand. It is also, incidentally, the best book I've read all year.
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Posted September 25, 2012
This book was good in that it was so different from the usual plot of novels. I will not go into a summary of the story. Many others will do that for me. I am not a chess person. I never had any desire to learn the game, so I was a bit lost with the chess metaphors. I thought the parallel American storyline was interesting, but didn't feel it gel with the chess player's story. The author made a good attempt at bringing these two stories together, but it seemed like she was reaching a bit. I am a follower of Russian history, and felt this book gave me a good idea of the more current Russia. It left me with a sad, desolate feeling that the Russians have always struggled and will continue to forever. It seems they never get a break. The government is and always will be corrupt. So, for me, I liked the book more from the current political happenings in Russia than the chess storyline or even the American woman.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 31, 2012
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Posted April 3, 2012
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